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October 2, 2012 > Fireman for a day

Fireman for a day

By Kenny Jacoby

It's not every day that a person willingly crawls into a smoke-filled building, rips a four-door sedan to shreds, performs CPR, climbs onto a roof across a rickety ladder, or puts out a fire with a massive fire hose. That is, unless you are a firefighter, in which case all of the above might be a common occurrence. But, I'm no firefighter. However, I was able to perform all those tasks at a "Fire Ops 101" demonstration on September 15.

This Fire Ops 101, an event hosted by the Alameda County Fire Department, was held at their training facility in San Leandro [Fremont Fire Department also hosts a similar event at their facility]. Public officials, civic leaders, and representatives of the media were invited to learn about firefighter training, organization and responsibilities plus choose to experience those challenges firsthand. Those invited had an option of either observing simulations or physically participate in them as "firefighters for a day." Observers are able to understand the careful teamwork and coordination necessary to effectively fight all types of fires. Participants were put right in the middle of the action.

The morning started with breakfast and orientation. Each participant was fitted for his or her own firefighter protective gear before splitting into teams and simulations. Firefighter "turnouts" that include coat, pants, boots, gloves, and a helmet with goggles are bulky and heavy. Although it sounds like plenty of equipment, when issued to me, I thought, "Is this it?" I was preparing to walk into a live fire and I was merely slipping a pair of pants over my khaki shorts, placing a coat over my t-shirt, and pulling some boots over ankle socks. This would be the only protection separating me from burning flames; I trusted it would be enough. Actual firefighters don't wear much more than what I was wearing, which means that the equipment must be highly effective. I was relieved to know that fire departments receive new clothing and turnouts as their current equipment wears down, because I certainly wouldn't want to wear old, worn equipment when confronted by a live fire.

The first station my team attended was "Search and Rescue" which involved crawling into a smoke-filled building and searching for a trapped "victim." Sounds easy, but it isn't! The firefighters assisting us made it clear that if, at any point, participants felt uncomfortable, we could just "tap out" and be done. A firefighter strapped an oxygen tank onto my back and pulled a breathing apparatus over my head. This would have been fine if I had any idea how to operate a gas mask, but I didn't. As we were all about to enter the burning building, one of the firefighters said, as he punched his chin with his palm and activated his breathing apparatus, "When you need to breathe, just hit the bottom of your gas mask like this." I figured that I would like to be breathing constantly, so I went ahead and hit my mask the way he showed me. Instantly I was bombarded with what sounding like hundreds of industrial grade fans blowing directly in front of my face. It was so loud that I couldn't hear any of the fireman's final instructions before we headed into the room. To make matters worse, once we crawled about five feet inside the burning building, the smoke was so thick that when I turned my head I could no longer see the door we had just entered through. Vision and hearing impaired, I felt absolutely useless. I wandered around what was probably an eight foot radius of space, feeling around the walls and floors for any trace of... well pretty much anything. I had no clue where I was, where anyone else was, and whether or not anyone would realize if I passed out on the floor right then and there. Overwhelmed and somewhat light-headed, I eventually felt another person's leg as he crawled around and I followed him like a baby duckling. At that point, my mission was no longer to find the dummy - my new mission was to not die in there.

After what felt like fifteen minutes (probably far less time) of crawling around aimlessly, someone ended up finding the dummy. I only knew this because someone else put my hand on it; at the moment I was not exactly focused on the rescue aspect of the drill. I vaguely heard somebody to say move the body, and so I attempted to push it out of the room. Maybe I was crippled with terror, but when I tried to move the body, I could not budge it more than a foot. Eventually I followed someone out of the building and into daylight where I could finally see again but still could not hear a thing.

We then went back into the building through one of the windows on the other side, and started the search all over again. I wonder how much ground I actually covered when crawling around the room hopelessly. This time, I was a little less terrified but it didn't help me in the slightest. I was dead weight to the team for the duration of the search, and when we got out of the building again, I was so relieved. I am fit and athletic, but by no means prepared for this. I couldn't comprehend the amount of training necessary to become accustomed to what I had just experienced.

Once recovered from the burning building, I asked the firefighters about what we had just done. It was impressive to learn how prepared they were, and how ready they seemed to face any situation. The level of teamwork between them was evident at all times, especially at the next station we attended, auto extrication. I was allowed to wield the Jaws of Life and a similar scissor-like cutter to help rip the doors off a seemingly normal and functional Saturn, and not feel bad about the way I did it. A hypothetical person was trapped in this car and if my team didn't get them out quickly, that person would die. Ripping doors off the car meant, quite literally, ripping the doors off the car. We didn't have to be extra careful and methodical about how we did it - just as long as we did our job. The firefighters described a specific procedure to remove the doors but didn't waste time making sure the car wasn't too badly damaged. Firefighters practiced scenarios in which they had to remove doors, the roof or remove a dashboard. Although some of these situations are extremely rare, nevertheless, they have to be ready for them. I can only imagine how many cars have been destroyed at that training center for all the various situations. If I was involved in a terrible accident on the freeway, I would certainly not want the first response team to be unsure of what to do.

In addition to these simulations, participants were able to climb across the ladder of a fire engine onto a roof while carrying heavy equipment, assist a paramedic with CPR and medical care during a 911 emergency, and hose down a fire. The day was an eye-opening experience to me. When worst comes to worst, such as on September 11, 2001, usually the first people on scene are firefighters. It is essential that fire departments are fully trained and equipped for any situation. Although I may never be a firefighter, I appreciate the bravery and training of those who chose that profession; they deserve our support and admiration.

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